I am constantly amazed at how the impacts of the NBA schedule are ignored in basic analysis. Teams are "slumping" if they lose to a series of good teams on the road in succession. They are "red hot" if they win a string of games they were absolutely supposed to win. In either case, the team is invariably exactly who they always were -- the snapshot of their record over some finite amount of time just looks a little different because of their schedule.
When the schedule IS mentioned, it's usually to fit a narrative agenda of the author. For whatever reason, Matt Dollinger of Sports Illustrated chose to point out a soft stretch in the Clippers schedule when dismissing their current winning streak -- but never mentioned the incredibly difficult run of games that had preceded the soft stretch. Even when Dollinger acknowledges that the Clippers have faced difficult teams, his implication is that LA is somehow not up to par with those teams as opposed to recognizing that when two good teams play, one of them has to lose. Consider these two blurbs from Dollinger's last three power rankings:
: What's most concerning is L.A. losing four of its last six games. Those four defeats came against the four teams with the best records in the West (Golden State, Portland, Memphis and Houston), reminding the chippy Clippers exactly where they stand without Blake Griffin.March 23
: As strong as the Clippers have been of late, the competition has been not. L.A. is 8-4 this month, but has lost to Golden State, Portland, Dallas and Houston. A four-game winning streak which features wins over three non-playoff teams doesn't erase all concerns.
Leaving aside the simple matter that the March 9 blurb was factually inaccurate (the Clippers had lost four of their last seven at the time, not four of their last six), how amazing is it to specifically mention a three point loss to the Grizzlies without also mentioning a more recent 22 point win over the same Grizzlies? Obviously, the Clippers can't compete with the best teams in the NBA -- provided you completely ignore the times when they can.
But my intent is not to single out the rather obvious biases of Dollinger -- it is simply to reiterate something I've said many times: the schedule matters. It's easy to dismiss the Clippers' win over the Knicks, and when they dominate similarly against Philadelphia tomorrow night, that too will be dismissed. But the fact that six of the Clippers' final 11 games come against teams among the worst seven in the entire league means that they have NOT played those six games to this point. In other words, their current record was compiled without a bunch of easy wins. (And this is an obvious example also of the discrepancy in the conferences -- New York and Philadelphia only represent four games on the Clippers' schedule, but make up eight games for the Raptors.)
The team's current five game win streak -- yes, aided by a 31 point win over the Knicks -- has increased their efficiency differential on the season to 6.3 points per 100 possessions, easily the second best mark in the league and improving daily. Those who don't feel the Clippers are 'real' contenders don't get it. By almost any advanced metric, they are the second best team in the league. The Warriors are easily the best right now, and the Spurs are the defending champs and I would accept an argument in favor of either of those teams over the Clippers. But arguing for the Grizzlies or the Rockets or the Blazers or even the Hawks over the Clippers right now comes down to preference and opinion -- not particularly informed opinion at that.
And speaking of the Grizzlies and the schedule, Memphis lost to the Cavs last night. At home. By 22. Friday the Grizz host the Warriors. After that they travel to San Antonio to play the Spurs on Sunday. And after that they still have road games against Golden State and the Clippers on their schedule. Including last night's Cavs game, that makes five of MEM's final 11 games against top five opposition. Which means they have NOT played those games up to this point. Why would anyone find it surprising that Memphis has a better record when they've played a weaker schedule? I mean, it only makes sense, right? And everyone will talk about the Grizzlies slumping at the wrong time when they come out of those games with three or four losses.
I pointed out that the Clippers would close strong against weak opposition a couple of weeks ago. I predicted that they'd make a move up the conference standings, though exactly how quickly Portland would fade was a surprise, even to me. Memphis is probably next on that list with their brutal schedule, and Houston won't be immune. The Clippers won't necessarily catch the Grizz -- it may come down to that April 11 meeting in LA -- but it's going to be a race before all is said and done. And none of this is surprising. It's just the way the schedule dictated things would be.